Scion of a wealthy family, sportsman and explorer, big game hunter, war hero, naturalist and conservationist, patriot, unabashed imperialist, author, politician. Theodore (“T.R.” or “Teddy” to his friends) Roosevelt, Jr., was the most colorful of American presidents, perfectly suited to the Progressive Era. In his role as a member of the State Assembly of New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President to William McKinley, and President of the United States, he promoted the ideals of reform and modernization. In his private life, his stoicism in the face of loss along with his courage in the face of mortal danger contributed to his image as the ideal of American masculinity. From the moment Teddy Roosevelt stepped onto the public stage, he truly was “larger than life.”
Born in October 1858 AD, Teddy was a sickly child, afflicted with severe asthma as well as every childhood disease prevalent at the time. Nevertheless, he was “mischievously inquisitive,” and soon developed a passion for zoology, which led to the pastime of taxidermy (any mother’s worst nightmare), beginning with the head of a dead seal from a local market when he was the age of seven. Homeschooled by parents and tutors, Roosevelt proved well-versed in some areas, an indifferent scholar in others. Although he entered Columbia Law School, he viewed the law as “irrational” and “tedious,” and soon dropped out to embark upon a career in politics – famously stating he “intended to be one of the governing class.”
With the backing of the Republican Party, Roosevelt launched his political career by winning a seat in the New York State Assembly in the elections of 1882, and made a mark exposing various corrupt practices in state government and sponsoring bills to improve conditions in cities. But political in-fighting proved as tedious as the law, and he “retired” for the first time to a more adventurous life in the “Wild West.”
T.R., between stints in office annoying influential men and failed election campaigns (he lost, for instance the 1886 mayoral election for New York City by a wide margin), would travel to his Chimney Butte Ranch in the Dakota Territory, vowing there to stay. Although periodically lured back to the East, he repeatedly returned to the West as a rancher and learned to ride, rope and hunt. Teddy even served briefly as a deputy sheriff; his western sojourns are best known through a series of articles and books he authored about the “cowboy way.”
Much as he loved the West, it held no particular affection for him; the severe winter of 1887 wiped out his herd and his investment. Roosevelt returned to the East disheartened. He had, though, gained a great love of the wilderness and "roughing it." That love of adventure would drive him in his much-publicized 1909-1911 safari to Africa (where he and his fellow hunters would kill or trap over 11,000 animals for the Smithsonian Museum) and his 1913-14 expedition to the Amazon (cut short by Roosevelt’s infections and illnesses).
The failure of his ranching ventures distressed Roosevelt greatly. But Teddy had already suffered heartbreak. When he was 24, his wife Alice of two years had died two days after giving birth to their daughter in 1884. Less than a day before, his beloved mother Mittie had died of typhoid fever in the same house. The double loss left him bereft and no doubt contributed to his Western fling. But in December 1886, Teddy married his childhood friend Edith Carow, who would give him five more children to gladden his days. Even a happy marriage could not suppress his sense of adventure; during the European honeymoon with Edith, Teddy led a climbing team to the summit of Mont Blanc, a feat which gained him membership in the highly respected Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.
With the coming of the Spanish-American War, again sensing adventure and so resigning his post as Asst. Secretary of the Navy, Teddy raised a command of his own – the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, better known as the “Rough Riders.” Lt. Colonel Roosevelt and his men saw action in several sharp fights, most notably the Battle of San Juan Hill, and returned home at the end with considerable notoriety. That notoriety certainly helped his narrow victory in the 1898 gubernatorial election in New York, not the first time Teddy’s image would resonate with the voters. At the GOP convention in 1900, he was put forth and became McKinley’s vice presidential candidate. Swept to a second term in a landslide, the unfortunate McKinley would be assassinated in September 1901; Roosevelt was sworn in as president on September 14.
T.R. would serve as President of the United States until 1909. Just as he had in the Dakotas and up San Juan Hill, he rode roughshod over convention, special interests, big trusts, and corporate corruption. In short order, he forced arbitration in the 1902 coalminers strike, established federal oversight of railroad rates, initiated the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, and brought more than 40 antitrust suits breaking up monopolies such as Standard Oil and Northern Securities railroad trust. His foreign policy was likewise aggressive... summed up in his "Big Stick" diplomacy.
Teddy based his approach to foreign policy on the old adage of "speak softly and carry a big stick." He himself described it as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis." For Teddy, that meant negotiate peacefully but simultaneously threaten with the big stick - via trade embargo, military action or whatever worked. A proponent of the acquisition of the Philippines and other once-Spanish colonial holdings by the United States to become a globe-spanning power, Roosevelt’s imperialist bent was on display. But two foreign initiatives are his best-remembered legacies: the Panama Canal, and the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded for his task as mediator to end the Russo-Japanese War. In dozens of crises and situations on the world stage, Teddy played a central and usually influential role... waving the big stick.
Despite his popularity and power, T.R.’s support for Taft as his successor led to a schism in the Republican ranks. While Roosevelt continued to espouse progressive principles, Taft along with many in the party rejected his leadership. When Teddy lost his bid to become the GOP’s presidential candidate, he founded the Progressive Party, commonly known as the “Bull Moose Party” and was promptly nominated its candidate. His platform was simple: “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” Surviving an assassination attempt (though the bullet remained embedded in his chest), Teddy failed to sway enough voters and finished second in the election that brought Woodrow Wilson to office. With that, T.R. withdrew from active politics, although his continuing attacks on Wilson’s policies certainly helped the Republicans regain control of Congress in 1918. In the early morning hours of January 6, 1919, Roosevelt died in his sleep after a night of having breathing problems.